A study from the American Sociological Association finds that conservative’s trust in science is at an all time low.
While trust in science remained stable among people who self-identified as moderates and liberals in the United States between 1974 and 2010, trust in science fell among self-identified conservatives by more than 25 percent during the same period, according to new research from Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.
“You can see this distrust in science among conservatives reflected in the current Republican primary campaign,” said Gauchat, whose study appears in the April issue of the American Sociological Review. “When people want to define themselves as conservatives relative to moderates and liberals, you often hear them raising questions about the validity of global warming and evolution and talking about how ‘intellectual elites’ and scientists don’t necessarily have the whole truth.”
Relying on data from the 1974-2010 waves of the nationally representative General Social Survey, the study found that people who self-identified as conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to self-identified moderates and liberals, and ended the period with the lowest.
In addition to examining how the relationship between political ideology and trust in science changed over almost 40 years, Gauchat also explored how other social and demographic characteristics—including frequency of church attendance—related to trust in science over that same period. Gauchat found that, while trust in science declined between 1974 and 2010 among those who frequently attended church, there was no statistically significant group-specific change in trust in science over that period among any of the other social or demographic factors he examined, including gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
“This study shows that the public trust in science has not declined since the mid-1970s except among self-identified conservatives and among those who frequently attend church,” Gauchat said. “It also provides evidence that, in the United States, there is a tension between religion and science in some contexts. This tension is evident in public controversies such as that over the teaching of evolution.”
So what’s the deal? Well, for years there have been proponents in both camps of the “conflict thesis”, which says that science and faith are eternally at odds with one another, that the twain shall never meet. Both sides usually loudly denounce the other and while that cartoonish behavior is good for reinforcing stereotypes, I think that it’s harmful for the Christian faith in the long run. One of the problems with Christian conservatives, admittedly, is a kind of anti-intellectualism that seems to be celebrated. J.P. Moreland describes this problem in his excellent book Love God With All Your Mind. Says Moreland,
Instead of standing up and doing the hard work of responding to the critics, Christians opted out and said, It doesn’t matter what the facts say, I feel Jesus in my heart and that’s all that really matters to me. So we opted for a subjective pietism instead of hard thinking on the issues, and therefore we lost our place in the public square. The way to deal with vain philosophies, wherever they may be found, is to have good philosophy, not to abandon the art of critical thinking altogether.
As with philosophy so also with science, which itself is based upon certain philosophical presuppositions. Instead of locating the few points where faith and science overlap and looking at these issues squarely, we’ve too often opted out instead of doing the heavy lifting that’s required. This is regrettable, because it is in many of the areas where theology and science meet on issues (such as the origin of the universe or origin of life) Christians could be encouraged as their theology stands under the scrutiny and offers a better explanation while science is at a loss in certain areas.
On the other side, some vocal scientists like Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins make overreaching and triumphalist claims about the results of science and how it supports their atheological views. Often these assertions are pretty groundless and surprisingly flimsy when scrutinized. With the astonishing progress of science, many have adopted a view of scientism, which is the view that science is the only way of attaining knowledge. This view is often asserted and not argued for, and the statement itself is self-refuting. You can’t get the knowledge that science is the only way of attaining knowledge through science itself. Furthermore, science itself takes a lot of things for granted that it can’t itself prove, like the laws of logic and math, that our senses are at least in part reliable guides to the external world, that our world is characterized by objective patterns and regularities, that there are other minds, etc. I think the former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour summed it up well when he said,
The differences between naturalism and theology are, no doubt, irreconcilable, since naturalism is by definition the negation of all theology. But science must not be dragged into every one of the many quarrels which naturalism has taken upon its shoulders. Science is in no way concerned, for instance, to deny the reality of a world unrevealed to us in sense-perception, nor the existence of a God who, however imperfectly, may be known by those who diligently seek Him. All it says, or ought to say, is that these are matters beyond its jurisdiction; to be tried, therefore, in other courts, and before judges administering different laws.
Amen to that. The lesson to be taken home from this sociological study is that Christians should show an active interest in the sciences and not retreating. For the Christian, all truth is God’s truth. Theology can inform science and vice versa. On the other hand, naturalists need not make overreaching metaphysical claims about just about everything: existence, free will, beauty and morality itself, based on so-called discoveries of science. Materialist, reductionist philosophy should not come dressed up in a lab coat with a “but science sez” when science is really limited and or silent on many issues.
- Moreland, J.P Love Your God With All Your Mind. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress. 1997. pp 22-23
- Arthur James Balfour, The Foundations of Belief, 8th ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1906) pg. 296